Zachary Hocker was curious about the tall, fair-haired, pale-blue-eyed gentleman he noticed in an old family photo.

So, in October 2017, he called his aunt, Martha Annette Hocker Bradley, a retired teacher in Willingboro.

She was 82, widowed, and battling cancer, but her voice was strong, her mind sharp, and her memories clear. His Aunt Annette had many stories to tell about their family in Virginia, going back generations to the Jim Crow era and earlier, to the time of slavery.

“She had a way of breathing life into these stories,” Hocker, 38, said from San Jose, Calif., where he grew up and works as a private tutor. “Listening to her, I felt like I was there.”

During a yearlong series of telephone conversations that he recorded with his aunt’s consent, Hocker and his aunt were inspired to write down key portions of the rich oral histories she had amassed in her lifetime. Including: the story of his great-great uncle, Tom Lewis, the man in the photo.

“Aunt Annette passed down to me, in intricate detail, the family stories she had been told as a child,” Hocker said. “She kept their names alive. She kept their stories alive.”

Bradley completed 55 pages — written on lined notebook paper in the precise and graceful penmanship of an earlier era — and drew from memory a map of the Black community in Farmville, Va., home to many roots of their family tree. Material from what she called her journal, as well as from their conversations, are blended into the manuscript of a novel the two finished shortly before her death on Nov. 19, 2018.

“It was a beautiful collaboration,” said Hocker. “Without Aunt Annette, these stories of our ancestors could have been forgotten, the way many African American stories have been forgotten.”

The first story Bradley told him about was that of his great-great uncle, whose blond hair, blue eyes, and light complexion meant he could “pass” as white. But he identified as Black and is the title character in their manuscript.

Lewis married a dark-skinned Black woman named Bessie and sat with his wife in the “colored” back seats of buses and trolleys in segregated Richmond, upsetting white passengers and sometimes attracting the attention of the police.

“I remember Annette saying that Tom would just tell the police, ‘We paid our fare,’” Hocker said. “Despite the hatred he faced for identifying as an African American and marrying a Black woman, Uncle Tom never allowed society to determine who he chose to love.”

Bradley devoted much of her 55 pages to her grandmother (Tom’s half sister) Rebecca Early, a legendary midwife known throughout Virginia for having delivered more than 700 babies without losing a single one.

Early was a woman who loved to grow flowers and who would wait patiently on her front porch in Richmond when her granddaughter was out on a date, Bradley wrote.

“Rebecca was a brave, independent, hardworking [sort of person], but at the same time Rebecca was a giving person, lovable (most of the time) but don’t make her angry, because she was going to tell God about it,” wrote Bradley.

Tracing back to slavery

Hocker said Bradley also spoke about “my great-great-great grandmother, Amanda, a house slave who tried to escape the plantation each of the four times she was raped and impregnated by [the owner]. His overseers finally threatened to sever her feet if she tried to escape again.”

Bradley traced the family’s maternal line even further back, to an enslaved 12-year-old girl in the late 1700s or early 1800s. She wrote:

“Her name was Jermame. That was the name the white people gave to her. Like Aunt Jemima. She was from Africa … She was captured and brought over to America. She had several children that were taken or sold. I know she had a Mary, an Amanda, and a Martha. And there was another one, because there were four girls. They may have had different fathers. Because they would just mate you or breed you … like you were cattle.”

Bradley’s only child, a son named Wayne who cared for her during her final years, died just eight months after she did. She had no grandchildren.

But while she and Hocker had only met once, when he was a child, they bonded quickly, especially given that her brother Andrew, who is Hocker’s dad, was on some of the calls.

Hocker said his aunt spoke often about her 30 years as an elementary schoolteacher in Mount Holly, Burlington County. As a young married woman she taught for three years in Guam, where her husband, Gus, was serving in the U.S. Air Force. The couple also traveled to Japan.

“I remember her telling me how over in Japan people were so nice, and treated them with dignity and respect, unlike in the segregated South,” said Hocker.

The stories attest to the ugly realities of the Jim Crow South: Tom was born as the result of the rape of Hocker’s great-great grandmother, Ida, by a white man.

Tom was ostracized by some in the family, but not by Rebecca, and they remained close into Tom’s adulthood. By then a skilled mason, he returned her kindness by giving her daughter Alma and husband Andrew (Bradley’s parents) a wedding gift of a lot for a new home in Richmond.

That was where Bradley snapped the photo of her well-dressed Uncle Tom in 1953.

‘Found a way to rebuild’

“I believe Annette wanted me to know that while slavery was the beginning of our family’s story in America, it was certainly not its end,” said Hocker. “She spoke of how they found a way to rebuild.”

“Thank God for this young, brave, and strong African girl whose blood flows through the bodies of her great grandchild, Rebecca’s children’s children today!’ Bradley wrote. “Many of her children’s children are … doctors, teachers, preachers, scientists, authors, actors, world travelers, managers, plus much more.”

Hocker, who studied anthropology at Yale, said he hopes to get the novel he and Bradley wrote published, “even though I have no connections” in the literary world.

“Annette saw the seed of a writer that had been lying dormant within me,” he said. “She watered that seed with her love, encouragement, and faith in me, until it blossomed.

“Aunt Annette spent the last year of her life entrusting me with these stories,” said Hocker. “It’s my obligation to keep on telling them.”